Meaning, Neurogamification

Digitally Addicted

Natural-born addicts: the human addiction circuit

Nearly 50 years ago the US Congress moved to ban tobacco ads on TV. It was finally recognized that tobacco was harmful to health. And nicotine was highly addictive, creating legions of unwilling addicts. This took a decades-long fight with the tobacco industry who tried to disprove both. The same has happened with gambling and lotteries and is lately happening with sugar. Half a century later more than 1 billion people still smoke, and there are 8 million tobacco-related deaths per year. Gambling continues to take its toll on addicts and their families. Sugar and processed foods are creating a global obesity crisis. The opioids crisis in the US is becoming a presidential campaign topic.

This happens because humans are natural-born addicts. All addictions seem to have the same physiological basis on the brain. The addictive substance triggers the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens which produces a pleasurable sensation. Over time, tolerance is developed and the comparatively lower release is started to be perceived as a threat by the amygdala, and thus craving starts. This physiological circuit makes addiction very difficult to overcome, even without physical withdrawal symptoms. The capability of people to overcome addiction spirals is linked to genetic sensitivity, which makes some people especially vulnerable. The environment is also critical, with exposure to the substance or behaviour making recovery very difficult.

Addicts and society pay health, economic and life fulfilment costs because of the exploitation of this addiction circuit. First, health, taking quality-adjusted years (QALYs) out of lives. For example, smoking is estimated to reduce around 3.5 QALYs by some studies. Second, economic, direct and indirect. Again, smoking has an estimated direct cost of up to $5.000 per year (varies widely per jurisdiction), health costs in the US in the high tens of billions, and estimated lower associated wages. Finally, there is a life fulfilment cost. The time we spend engaging or recuperating from the behaviour is forever lost to our loved ones and to our own development. Alcohol is a good example, with later-stage alcoholics losing their ability to function almost entirely.

Of course, drinking, smoking and gambling can be fun and enjoyable experiences. Moderate use can improve our lives without incurring heavy costs. This requires to avoid triggering the addiction circuit too strongly. The problem is that often companies are incentivized to maximize addiction. With addiction circuit triggering being directly linked to economic gain. This creates widespread mass addiction until the industry becomes regulated and incentives are aligned towards responsibility. Thus the possibility of exploiting the human addiction circuit makes regulation of industries engaging in addicting behaviour absolutely necessary.

Digital addiction: the lastest addiction circuit exploiters

Over the last 10 years, we have witnessed the blossoming of the biggest addiction yet, digital media. US adults spend more than 12 hours on average on media, more than half of which is on digital media. This means that adults spent two-thirds of their waking time engaging with media. No wonder there is less time left for engaging with our family, our friends or our community.

Digital media also has the hallmarks of addiction. We have all felt the compulsion to check one more email, scroll down one more time in the endless screen, play one more candy crush level or watch the next episode in the series. Our nucleus accumbens is in full swing, and our amygdala is ready to ping us if we try to stop. Most of us are addicted to our smartphones and our other devices and for the most part, we know it.

Digital companies also profit from addiction circuit triggering. We have many corporations that make money mostly out of our attention, Facebook, Google and Netflix being the prime examples, but many others trying to join into the party. Thus, the best brains in the world are now being funnelled to perfect and reinforce digital addiction cycles. Hundreds of thousands of engineers are working to increase advertising revenues or product engagement. They are perfecting every way in which the screen can make it slightly more difficult to turn it off. Success is keeping us some extra seconds and making us come back a little more.

This addiction is very different from others, it doesn’t have direct health costs and its economic cost is minimal. It is our life fulfilment cost that is staggering. We are sacrificing a third of our waking hours, a third of our life at the digital altar. Of course, digital media can be enjoyable and useful, there are no physical withdrawal symptoms and it is voluntary. This makes it difficult for regulators and the public to act on it. As a consequence, the smart engineers in Silicon Valley are doing their job, completely unchecked. Digital time gradually edges up crowding out other activities and making it more difficult to escape.

12 hours might seem like a lot, but the real danger lies ahead. New interfaces are being deployed: voice, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality. They are more immersive, they are more entwined in our lives, they will be even more addictive. They might take the 12 hours closer to 18, gradually erasing any non-digital activities. If we allow digital addiction to continue unregulated we are in grave danger. The companies that make money out of engagement and their engineers won’t be able to change. They addicted to making money themselves. They think (probably correctly) “if I don’t do it, someone else will.”

Of course, the cost is not only the hours. It is also the quality of our human lives. I still have to meet someone that feels that the last four hours of digital consumption are more fulfilling than a walk in the forest, time with friends, spirituality, physical activity or creative endeavour. But the more digital expands and the rest of our lives are diminished, the harder it is to get out of the digital whirlpool.

Act quickly: lives are being squandered as we speak

We will act as a society and some of us will act as individuals. As a society, we will regulate digital addiction like we have regulated other addictions before. As always it will be difficult and it will take time. There are strong vested interests and the specifics are sufficiently different from previous addictions. While we get our act together, people lose their lives in part, or even in whole to the digital addiction. All of those human relations and endeavours that could have been but were sacrificed at the altar of engagement metrics.

For all of us, the admonition is clear. Wake up to digital addiction in our own life and that of our loved ones, and do something about it. Help wake up regulators and policymakers so digital addiction is reined in. We cannot ask the merchants of digital addiction to regulate themselves, no addiction circuit exploiter has done it before.

For those working near digital addiction, we need to wake up. Digital addiction is real and we should be helping to reduce its impact. It will require sacrifices, but good causes always do. In this time of scarce engineering talent, it is possible to make a difference and shift company policy. If you have qualms about the work you are doing, you are probably right to be concerned.

In 2012, Youtube proudly set the goal of increasing the time spent on the service from 100 million daily hours to 1 billion daily hours. In 2017, they achieved the goal ahead of schedule. Should Youtube employees be proud of their achievement? I think they should be very concerned about what they have done. Tobacco executives ingeniously pushed to sell more cigarettes to more people. Many people enjoy smoking and are able to quit at will. However, there are also many lung cancers, unwilling addicts and helpless teenagers. I am sure there are many happy stories among the billion Youtube hours. But, what are the sad stories behind those billion daily hours? What happy stories have Youtube and many others crowded out by leveraging our addiction circuit?

Meaning, Tech and Business

Life priorities and technology


Adjusting how you make trade-offs between health, family, learning, career, and wealth.


In a world with faster change and disruptive technological shifts, how should we adjust our personal priorities? Technologies like autonomous cars, genomics or AI automation could have a significant impact on many dimensions of our lives and the trade-offs it makes sense to make. While we can’t know the future, we can try to predict the broad outlines of those changes and use them to inform how we prioritize and make decisions.


The are three areas that seem to have clear adjustments to make: health, family & friends, and learning. In this, we are (on average) missing optimal behavior by a wide margin. Career and wealth are tougher to predict, but there are some elements that can be considered around them.

Health: invest in our medium to long-term. Healthcare technology is making us live longer and with more quality, and developments like AI or genomics will only accelerate this. Science has also identified the big killers/disablers (cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, dementia, cancer….) and what we need to do to tackle them. There is surprising consensus on a set of 6 very simple interventions: get our weight in the correct range, exercise regularly (strength, endurance, flexibility), stop smoking (alcoholism, drugs, etc…), improve our nutrition, sleep well and stay active. These 6 will improve our quality of life significantly and would probably extend our lifespans over a decade. These 6 are difficult, and many ignore them. We are programmed to be very short-term focused and this health program has its benefits in the long-term. So invest in the long-term today.

Family and friends: enjoy life in the now. Technology is also clearly damaging the quality of our attention and relationships. While we can interact in more ways than ever, many of the interactions end up being shallow and distracted. We can expect this only to increase, with AR/VR, AI and many other technologies that can dehumanize our relationships. At the same time, all evidence points to real psychological benefits and happiness coming from close and rich human relationships. The dying always wish they had spent more and better time with their loved ones rather than working or tweeting. So take every chance to enjoy life in the now with your friends and family. Even if you live longer your children’s childhoods will never come back.

Learning: growth mindset continuous development. Gone is the time in which you could master an area in your youth and be an expert all your life. Now areas of expertise grow continuously and are disrupted and superseded by others. If we believe in accelerating change, we can only expect this to increase. This requires rethinking education completely as a society, and also changing our relationship with learning. Learning shouldn’t be limited to a phase of life, it should be continuous. If we stop learning for a prolonged period of time (i.e. months) we will accumulate a large learning debt and could significantly hurt our future productivity and earnings. Millenials and Gen Z, know this instinctively, so they value learning extremely highly. So put yourself in the situation to always be learning.

Career: hedge your bets. Companies are dying quicker, and with faster technological change this will go even faster. Consequently, investments in lifetime employment relationships with companies are more dangerous to make. When you invest in a particular company a large part of the personal capital you develop is specific to the company (e.g. politics, who is who, specific ways of working). This specific personal capital is key to climbing the corporate ladder but totally useless outside it. So, if your company restructures, you might end up having to write-off a huge investment and live with productivity losses. If your job has you learning about company-specific issues only you should beware, even if it pays well and you seem poised to advancement. It might be a golden cage that suddenly turns to lead. So always be learning in your jobs, and make sure your bets are hedged.

Wealth: at least think about your priorities. Social norms push us to wealth accumulation as the key metric of success, with full visibility of the wealthiest in the world. And it is true that wealth allows you to invest in the previously discussed priorities like healthcare, learning and friends and family. However, financial innovation and asset price volatility have grown substantially and are growing even more. Technologies like the blockchain, autonomous cars, artificial intelligence, and energy could create new asset classes, wipe out existing ones and transform existing value distributions. Technology could also create abundance in which wealth ceases to be so important. This means future wealth might be less relevant or wiped out, even if relatively well diversified. So, how much time should we invest in creating and accumulating wealth? How much should we spend? Which spending really supports our priorities and which is about keeping up with the Joneses? Should we sacrifice today to be able to have in an uncertain future? Difficult questions that each of us should grapple with and consider.

Stop and think. Are you investing enough in your health and family&friends? It is a no-brainer with short-term paybacks. Are you learning enough? How could you do it? Is your career making you too company-specific, should you flee the golden cage or find the way to melt the ingots? And what is your relationship with wealth? Do you invest enough in non-tangible things like learning or healthcare? Are you investing too much in something that might disappear or be disrupted completely? Whatever your answers thinking about what is important in your life is always a great investment.